Heading into the game, both #25 Rutgers and #8 Duke had a much tougher draw against one another than most teams in the NCAA Women’s Soccer tournament. Despite being ranked 8th in the polls, Duke only earned one of the #4 seeds. As one OTB commenter astutely asked, if there are 64 teams in the field, why are two top 25 squads squaring off in the first round?
Excellent question, but at the end of the day to be the best you have to beat the best eventually. The contest lived up the billing, as good a game as you’ll get in the first round of tournament play.
In a steady rain in low 50 degree temperatures, the athletes on the field were plenty warm enough that most were in short sleeves even though the fans couldn’t handle the elements. Duke had the better of the play in the first half but failed to put a major scare into the Scarlet Knights. The second half began and it was more of the same. Both teams had scoring chances early in the second, but the game began to open up with about 30 minutes to go in regulation. Not surprisingly, it coincided with both teams center backs on the sidelines with injury. Chantelle Swaby did return for RU later in the half.
Duke had more total chances, but due to the nature of Rutgers’s defensive style sucking Duke into the offensive zone, the Scarlet Knights had a lot of real estate for counter attacks. Amirah Ali drew plenty of double teams, but still was able to cause havoc at times. For example with 18:47 remaining huge block by the RU defender on one of Duke’s best chances turned into a counter where Rutgers then picked up a corner after a tremendous individual effort from Kenie Wright.
After a sky high corner kick, the ball bounced around the box for seemingly ever and was cleared by the Blue Devils after a handball that wasn’t called inside the six yard box by Duke star Taylor Racioppi, an Ocean Township, NJ native. Otherwise, Racioppi was simply awesome this game slowed only by some superhuman play by Madison Pogarch at left back for the Scarlet Knights.
After pleading the officials by RU to no avail, Duke used the momentum on the other end to regain control and dominate the ball. The game remained scoreless until 12:18 remained and a yellow card was given to Tiernny Wiltshire. Wiltshire was probably fouled before she got her hands up at the shoulder of a Duke player. The referee was quick on the booking and it set up Duke nicely. The ensuing free kick from 30 yards away from goal, 10 yards from the right sideline by Ella Stevens was quickly flicked by #12 Kayla McCoy for the only score of the game. Defense was in good position, but on such a quick header of the sideways and backwards variety there was nothing RU could do and trailed 1-0.
With 11 minutes an almost identical free kick was given to RU but the ball was headed just wide by a more congested group in an almost identical spot to where the Duke goal came from. After that, Duke was able to play tic-tac-toe deep in the Rutgers corner to kill some clock. Rutgers earned one legit opportunity on a shot from 25 yards out with three minutes left that went about five feet over the crossbar.
Then a yellow card was called with 2:54 left giving Rutgers a free kick about 25 yards out by the ball was served to an area where no RU players made a run to. A cross just inside two minutes was the Scarlet Knights’s final opportunity because a deep throw in resulted in an offsides under a minute to go.
Rutgers was Jersey tough in this game, but it was not enough against a very skilled Duke Blue Devils squad. This was a disappointing result for a program that had been so successful in NCAA Tournament play the last few seasons. The team played very well this season and showed significant improvement possessing the ball without compromising their defense. It’s a tough way to go out for the seniors. Finishing second place in the Big Ten is the best finish of any Rutgers athletic program since RU joined the conference in 2014, aside from men’s lacrosse that did the same in 2016. Coach Mike O’Neill is a great coach and deserves much credit for the success.
Thank you to all the seniors who played their final game and good luck wherever life takes them.